Scythe Strategy and Planning (+Scythe-960)

My thoughts on Scythe strategy. Also expanded to include updates on my foray into randomly generating more Scythe content...
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Scythe, Chess, Openings, and Strategy

John Martorana
United States
Holbrook
New York
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(Start of Scythe strategy blog Here)
(First Case study Here)


We interrupt this irregularly scheduled Scythe strategy blog to bring you a more abstract, philosophical post. A wall of text with no pictures. The kind of thing a more pretentious (or frankly, better) writer might be able to get away with titling "The Tao of Scythe" or something like that...

I've seen a few comparisons of Scythe to chess. That's only natural, I suppose. Chess is the one of the oldest and most studied strategy board game of all time. It has entered our Western society's collective unconscious as THE game intellectual prowess. Chess metaphors can be found throughout our vernacular and our pop culture, often seen in the classic trope of the "Chessmaster" hero or villain who outwits his opponents at every turn. My own random Player Mat generator being called "Scythe 960" is a chess reference. Almost any halfway-decent strategy game will eventually be compared to the chess in one way or another. And Scythe is a very good strategy game.

A mildly disturbing trend, though, comes in the form of posts like this one which seem to be predicated on the belief that you can create an "opening book" of moves for each Faction/Player Mat pairing. More personally troubling is the thought that this blog itself, especially given the last three Case Study posts (#1, #2, #3) might drive people to think that codifying and memorizing openings is a good idea. (This post Here makes me a bit wary that people could come away from this blog with such notions.) Let me be clear: I don't think an opening book of moves is a such a good idea.

Before I move on, let me clarify that my lack of faith in an opening book is NOT rooted in the idea that having such an opening book would "ruin" Scythe or make it less fun for me or others. Although I know there are going to be some who oppose an opening book on those grounds, I personally have no such fears. Rather, having read a few generic chess books in my time, I feel that a list of openings for Scythe would be about as useful as the lists of openings often found in the appendix of some of those books. That is, not very useful at all. In this way, at least, the analogies made between Scythe and chess are somewhat apt.

If you've ever listened to almost any successful chess players, most say the same thing: openings are the last thing you should study. Some say that studying Tactics is what you should spend most of your time on. I've also heard it advocated that the best way to study is roughly endgame then midgame then openings. If you don't know what you're looking for at the end of the game, how do you know what moves are better in the middle? If you don't know what you're looking for in the middle, how do you figure out what to do in the beginning?

I can imagine how a collection of openings for Scythe might look. You're Engineering Rusviet? Do these 7 steps in order. But did it take into account your Objectives? Whether you had 2s or 5s for your Combat cards? What you get from your Encounter? Would it even take into account who your opponents are, what they've done, and what they're likely to do? Even the most cursory of chess opening lists give the opponent's moves. And just like an opening book for chess, an action sequence in Scythe can go off the rails when opponents don't cooperate and play exactly how they're "supposed to", such as by not allowing you Combat Stars or by preemptively taking territories you weren't expecting. Once you're off book, then what? And if something beneficial happens, such as a decent Encounter or opponent placing themselves in an exploitable position, you don't want to ignore that. Far better than memorizing a list of moves is learning principles. Mostly, a solid opening in chess can simply be derived from principles and calculation. Even when you remove their opening books, the best chess computer programs in the world are still better than the best humans because all solid opening moves can be derived purely from principles and calculation. And the beginning of Scythe is generally far less calculation-intensive than chess.

"So John," you ask, "don't those Case Studies you just wrote undermine your whole point here?" Aren't they, in many ways, just the first part of an opening book? Not in my mind, no. In fact, from my perspective they strengthen my argument.

I think the first Case Study (Agricultural Polonia) was probably the best received. It certainly engendered the most discussion, at least. The first thing you will notice (hopefully) is that it is not merely a list of moves. It is a discussion. It states a general overarching strategy - quickly Producing 8 Workers and rushing to the Factory - and gives the benefits and disadvantages of 2 different approaches. It's not a rigid plan. I even mention the option of bailing on the general plan as early as turn 3 if the first Encounter doesn't go the right way. In fact, the discussion in the comments is as valuable as the main post itself. GFLima gives yet a third way open to achieve similar goals. After all that discussion, I'm even not 100% under what circumstances each opening is strongest, or even if the whole concept is weaker than doing something more standard, such as only making 5 Workers and doing the Produce/Build Action more.

Now, there are books on Chess Openings. Quite often, an initial series of 3 to 6 moves is given an entire book. Not only are the first few moves given, but a discussion follows. The general future plans and common theme are explored. Weaknesses are mentioned. Examples of possible oppoment mistakes are given, as are the ways to capitalize on these errors. THIS sort of "opening book", I can get behind. In my own way, I hope the Case Studies and the comments they generatr are a sort of condensed version of this.

I'm someone who advocates having a flexible approach to Scythe. You don't know exactly what's going to happen so you want as much exposure to upside variance as you can get. Keep an eye out for where you can get a boost. But that doesn't mean having no plan. Quite the opposite. Much like in chess, you should be looking at where you want to be later, and see what moves are likely to get you there. You can totally "wing it" in that you come into the game with no preconceived plan. But of course you will do better the further you look ahead more you learning from previous experience.

So anyway... that's the thousand-or-so word explanation of why I tend to dismiss the idea of an opening book when it come up. Admittedly, it's an oddly specific topic to write so much about in an already pretty niche blog. I'm not sure this post is of actual use to anyone at all. But hey, it's my blog. It just struck me as something I'd wanted to reply to a few times, while also requiring an inappropriately verbose response for any other forum. If, for some reason, you manged to make it through the whole thing, you have my heartfelt apologies. Feel free to vent about whatever you want in the comments.
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